George Michell went to Hampi annually for more than 20 years, literally mapping the site with his colleagues. But he doesn’t want to go back anymore.
He had been there much before it was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). His works are the ones that have taken the Vijayanagara Empire to the world in the form of books. Yet, George Michell, one of the most distinguished architectural scholars the world has today, and an unmatched authority on south Asian architecture, doesn’t find the motivation to go back to Hampi. For what he sees there now hurts him.
“This is not the Hampi it used to be,” says Michell.
In a freewheeling interaction, Michell shares all about his encounter with Hampi, the journey that was, and how he has witnessed Hampi change over the last four decades.
For over two decades, since 1980 upto 2002, Michell along with John Fritz and many others visited Hampi every single year. The result of which is an array of books, countless publications and the repository of it all — the Vijayanagara Project .
Fritz and Michell carried out extensive documentation of Hampi for 22 years during which they mapped over 25 square kilometres of the ruins, measuring and drawing around 1,000 structures, both preserved as well as those in various stages of dilapidation. The study resulted in more than 34,000 archaeological features being located and described.
Having completed the documentation in 2002, they have been working on the making of an archaeological atlas.
“An archaeological atlas is a detailed map of the site showing everything that can be observed on the surface — not with excavation — but whatever can be seen. May a small little mark on a rock or three rocks fallen, a little pestle over here, whatever can be seen has been documented,” says Michell.
Once finalised, the atlas along with a catalogue of their drawings, maps and photographs will be given to the British Library, which will house this magnum opus.
“Given that the site has undergone a lot of changes, there are many things on the maps that can no longer be seen. So I think it is an important project,” says Michell.
But it has not just been about printed pages but imprinted memories that the four-decade journey has gifted them. From ‘sleeping in the ruins’ and the systemic support they received back then to now being questioned for even moving around with a notebook at heritage sites, much has changed, says Michell, and a lot for the worse.
Commenting on the vandalism of the pillars a few months ago at Hampi, Michell says “there are much worse things that have happened — but yes, maybe this will draw the attention to it”.
This was not the state of affairs when they began their journey with the remains of Vijayanagara.
Recollecting his tryst with the timeless treasure trove of architectural history, Michell paints a vivid picture of the Hampi that was and how it all began.
“In the 1970s, before you were born, I made a couple of trips to Hampi from Badami, just as a tourist. Back then there was nowhere to stay, nothing to drink, all hot and difficult to understand. But I went back a couple of times and decided that we should go into documentation. So at the beginning of the 1980s we decided to document and managed to get few students — from Delhi, London and Dublin.
“A motley group of people started to make drawings and take photographs. But at the end of two-three weeks, I thought I am not finished yet. Maybe I’ll come back next year and thus began the journey. We came back year after year,” he reminisces.
Each year they would be joined by students from all over the world who would volunteer to be a part of the project. “We had no trouble recruiting students each year. Because the place as you know is magic. So everybody was fascinated and they would tell their friends who would then turn up next year,” says Michell. “We told them we would pay no salary and you can’t come to us if you think you are going to earn money. But they came anyhow,” he adds.
The count over the years has been more than 200. “We don’t have an exact count because we didn’t keep a precise count in those first years. We didn’t think we were going to go year after year after year— but afterwards, we did get more careful”.
“Every day they went out measuring; evenings they came back and did the drawings — pencil and tracing paper — I had to look at them if they were ok — if they weren’t they would go back the next day and redo it.”
But what was it that lured Michell to the ruins of Hampi?
“I am an architectural historian and I was interested in the south India of fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Back then, there hadn’t been much work on architectural history. There may have been work on the political history, the economic history but about the city itself we had no maps, no inventory, not many photographs, not much information. So my team of volunteer architects, archaeologists, students were those who worked to fill in this gap”.
Hampi Was Home
The team has had amusing experiences from sleeping in the ruins on mattresses to one of the students being woken up in the Hazar Rama Temple one morning by a cow licking her ear. Until they had a camp that the government helped them set up at the site, they just slept wherever they could and ate whatever the locals could dish out for them.
But none of it is the same now, he laments. Unless you wish to spend a great deal of money, then of course you have great options to stay in Hampi, but for a modest traveller or a student, the heritage city has not much. No shops, no stalls, not enough facilities, and with the bazaar gone and local stakeholders displaced, it sure isn’t celebrating the heritage in entirety.
Responding to a few questions around heritage management, Michell sheds light on what ails heritage management at a world heritage site like Hampi, and how things were better off when the ruins didn’t have an official custodian, so to say.
Q. Was Hampi better off earlier?
A. It was certainly different, we had a run of the whole site — we had the permit from the central government to map, measure and photograph — we could go anywhere we want — these days it is not like that. These days strangely you can’t go anywhere. A few days ago, I was even stopped from writing things down in a notebook. At Halebeedu, the person who stopped me from taking notes said I needed permission. Why do I need permission when I am not even touching anything? The Archeological Survey of India (ASI) officials are getting more and more possessive. There were so many youngsters climbing on the monument, clicking selfies and photographs, doing things they shouldn’t be doing. That was ok. But they had a problem with me writing down things in my notebook.
Q. And this was not so earlier, you say. What has changed over the years?
A. They are trying to control everything because they know nothing is in their control — for instance, say photography. But, certainly, it wasn’t tourist unfriendly earlier. There were plenty of facilities before but they have been pulled down. The infrastructure is not in place and the Hampi management authority doesn’t seem very capable.
Q. What about the Hampi Bazaar that was pulled down?
A. It is sad to see the bazaar not there, which is why I don’t like to go there so much now. It is sad. It has lost a lot of its character. They simply pulled down the bazaar.
Q. This issue needs to be taken up — what were the circumstances that led to the demolition there?
A. In the UNESCO mandate, the people who do business, who live, who are involved in the city — should also somehow have some stake in what happens to the site — but in Hampi, these people were ignored.
It is important to find out why this happened, and who was responsible for it. Because we had friends who suddenly lost their houses, their shops and they were compensated for very minimally, including our photographer who lost his house. His parents lost their house and shop and everything, and now live in a rented house in Hospet.
There was the Mango Tree Restaurant, was a lovely place. It was not doing anybody any harm. We would go there in the middle of the day, have a lovely south Indian meal. They had nice washrooms which were maintained properly. It was beautiful.
Q. Despite being a UNESCO world heritage site, even the washrooms that were to be in place lie around unused and mostly unusable. Is this how a UNESCO World Heritage Site should be kept? The ASI doesn’t seem to be perturbed by all that has happened.
A. The ASI doesn’t feel it has to justify anything it does. It makes decisions and it just does it; it doesn’t involve the locals. It doesn’t discuss if we should do this or that. They use the umbrella of UNESCO — But UNESCO didn’t say this. And sadly UNESCO can’t protest either because UNESCO can only respond from a government initiative — so local people could not ask UNESCO to protect it. In this case, UNESCO is powerless but they misuse the organisation, in my opinion.
Q. If you have to equate Hampi to any other heritage city in the world, which would that be? How can Hampi be on a par with other world heritage sites?
A. Well, Hampi reminds us of the ancient Roman cities — cities like Ephesus, or Pergamon in Turkey. They are older — 1,500 years older — but they have great streets with colonnades, places, and temples and civic monuments and fortifications and laid out in landscapes.
And they are great cities with all sorts of remains above the ground, collapsed on the ground and under the ground. But they also have museums, visitor facilities, places to stay and eat — they have everything you need but they are grand urban ancient places.
Whenever I go to Hampi, I feel it is like one of the Hellenistic ancient Roman cities. And in a way, there is nothing else in India quite like Hampi. I have seen many places, I haven’t seen them all but still, Hampi is very special and people in Karnataka I think are very proud of it. But they get dismayed when they go there and see how hopeless everything is.
Q. If you had to compare it to heritage cities elsewhere in terms of management — what would you have to say about Hampi?
A. I am not an authority on heritage management. But ancient sites, from what I have seen in other countries — can be managed well — can satisfy the needs of local people as well as visitors — by giving basic facilities and information. This can happen without in any way endangering heritage. There are ways of doing this.
In Europe, we have many examples of medieval cities which have modern facilities in them but the heritage is still respected — the fabric of the old buildings is intact. But this has not happened in India at least not in Karnataka. It has happened in Rajasthan — they are more advanced in this — heritage has been rescued. But not in Karnataka. Heritage was wild territory; it suffered. But it’s a big place — it doesn’t have to necessarily suffer any more — that’s more the point.
Q. But it continues to suffer. Without the bazaar, for instance, it feels barren.
A. What have they contributed to the site with that action? Then, there are not enough guardians to protect the monuments; so things happen that should not. They are spending a huge sum of money on fences, and lawns and trying to repair the buildings and make them new — which I feel they could just leave them as they are and maintain them. They are ruins. You can’t turn a ruin into a new building. It is not possible. More importantly, why — why deny history? This is magnificent as it is. Narasimha is the biggest instance of it.
But no, we are not in a culture of learning. We do things; we just do them. We don’t think, we don’t interact with specialists, we don’t open up the board to what’s the right way to do it, what could we learn from other countries. There’s a lot we could learn and there’s plenty of money — money is no longer a hindrance — it is the culture you see. So I get a little bit sad — because this is not the Hampi it used to be.
On that sombre note, he remarks that his journey with Hampi is finished. “I am no longer working with Hampi. But I am certainly interested in the Vijayanagara period, hence I am now working on Vijayanagara before and after Hampi,” he adds. John (Fritz) is now working with photographer Surendra Kumar, who is helping him with the maps and database.
Having closed the chapter of Hampi, the master archaeologist is currently co-authoring a guide book on the Hoysalas, and a book on the temples of the Deccan.